How to Use Combinatorics to Generate Good Ideas

Blog Post
January 19, 2017

How do you get to the answer of determining how one agency sets themselves apart? In my experience in the agency world, most, if not all, advertising agencies talk like they are selling you the same thing: 50% creative idea generation plus 50% management and organization of those ideas so they can conjure up a truly innovative execution.

While it is critical for agency creative teams to do their homework to learn about what attracts and retains customers, it is not enough. Good agencies must incorporate a sound process or methodology for taking what they have learned to the next level to generate ideas and to be able to innovate on them successfully. Understanding where good ideas come from and how they come to life will help you evaluate which creative agencies stand out from the rest.

So, where DO good ideas and innovative executions of those ideas come from? One answer is combinatorics, a mathematical concept dealing with combinations of objects in a set.

How does math relate to creativity?

Creative ideas that lead to innovation is a process of recombinant search. Every creative idea that moves through an idea generation process can be innovated upon and turned into a realistic solution to a problem. This can be thought of as an assembling of a new combination of components, ideas or processes.

In other words, successful ideas and innovations are an output of recombination or blending of other ideas.

In his book Paid Attention – Innovative Advertising for a Digital World, Faris Yakob lays out a very simple creative process on how to have ideas, broken down into 6 steps. Recombination is the fourth key step. According to Yakob, creatives bring any and all ideas from various sources and blend them together to form new ideas by combining them in different ways.

For example, Yakob explains that using the elements of the brand behavior model, we can apply a simple application of combinatorics to these model elements to help serve as a solid starting point for generating creative ideas.

The elements of the brand behavior model include:

  • Product
  • Service
  • Action
  • Content
  • Tool
  • Advertising

Combinatorics says that we can simply pair these elements up in different ways to create new idea areas such as:

  • Content + Tool = Content Tool (e.g. tool that helps consumers to create content)
  • Advertising + Tool = Advertising Tool (e.g. tool to interact with the advertising)
  • Action + Content = Action Content (e.g. content that is reportage of a brand action)
  • Product + Service = Product Service (e.g. create a service extension of the product, or a product extension of the service)

These can in turn be recombined or blended in the following way:

  • Content Tool + Advertising = Ad campaign generated by using a content tool
  • Product Service + Content = Content that demonstrates the service extension, or shows people using it.

Anyone can create a simple combination engine by writing all ideas on separate cards, shuffling them and then laying them out on a table to see which old ideas can be combined to create something new.

While combinatorics is not the only approach to generating ideas and executions of those ideas, it is an elegant and simple (and innovative) way to getting the creative idea generation process going.